Anfield. Tuesday night, at about ten to nine. The last home game of a topsy-turvy season for Liverpool.
Stewart Downing is about to attempt to bag his first Premier League goal for the Reds in much the same fashion that a goal-less Peter Crouch did against Portsmouth in November 2005; a penalty. A free shot, from twelve yards out.
Downing strikes the ball. The keeper goes the wrong way, the ball is inside the post…
But not by quite enough, it rebounds out and Downing remains without a Premier League goal for the Reds, much like Crouch did on that winter afternoon seven years ago. Potential cheers turn to groans in an instant.
Perhaps a more damning statistic for a player bought in to set up opportunities for his colleagues is that the former Aston Villa man has yet to register an assist in the league for Liverpool either.
For £20m that seems like a poor return. But this is partly where I believe the problem lies; his price tag. Much like a big money move appears to have hampered Andy Carroll, though in fairness the Geordie has finally shown some continued good form in the last few weeks.
It’s not Downing’s fault that he cost so much. Indeed, I’m sure he’d much rather he had cost a lot less, as that sort of expenditure leads to huge expectations both from the fans (who are desperate for the good times to return to Anfield) and the press (who love a ‘£20m Kop Flop’ headline at the best of times).
At heart though, all Liverpool fans know that Downing will always be a ‘Steady Eddie’ footballer, and not a £20m man in the conventional sense. Yet still he gets berated in the stands and online, so how poorly has he performed this season?
Ignoring his lack of assists (as the strikers are often to blame by not converting decent chances; witness Carroll thumping the Kop end crossbar against Swansea if you don’t believe me), he’s the 15th highest ranked midfielder for number of chances created in the Premier League this season, and 20th best player overall. That’s not spectacular, it’s not poor, but it’s decent enough.
Within his chance creation figures, he has created eleven clear-cut chances this season, which is at least four more than any other Liverpool player. Perhaps more interestingly, the only players with a higher figure than that in the top six of the Premier League this season are Gareth Bale (last season’s player of the year), David Silva (the early frontrunner for this season’s award, and the top player for assists in the Premier League this season) and Robin van Persie, the eventual recipient of the honour. That suggests to me that maybe Downing does belong at the top end of the Premier League. How else can we judge his performance?
Soccernomics author Simon Kuper has been quoted as saying “If you’re looking for an attacking midfielder, a great stat is pass completion in final third of the pitch. The best players are really good at that”. Similarly, in this interview, Rafa Benitez points out the value of final third passing accuracy, and reveals that the average for England, Italy and Spain is around 64-65%.
Stewart Downing has completed 82% of the passes he has attempted in the final third of the pitch in the Premier League this season, considerably above the average for the top European leagues. For Liverpool, he is second only to the mercurial Maxi Rodriguez, and only by one percent at that. He may not have always taken the correct option in the final third, but the ability appears to be there at least.
Perhaps he’s not helped in regards to the fans’ perception of him as the main attribute to judge him on is crossing; he seldom gets past his defensive opponent after all, which is often what supporters like to see from their wingers. But much like David Beckham used to, Downing can still whip in a decent delivery without getting beyond the defender.
To my mind, the statistics for crossing accuracy are about as useful as assist figures; if a player puts in a fantastic cross but the forwards are dawdling outside the penalty area, then it’s wasted, and his accuracy figure drops. This was seen during Downing’s man-of-the-match turn in this season’s Carling Cup final, as an out-of-form Andy Carroll failed to anticipate the quality deliveries that the former ‘Boro boy was serving up.
Let me be clear, I’m not trying to suggest he’s had a fantastic season by any means; his crossing is not always as incisive as it was at Wembley in February (far from it), he has yet to develop any apparent understanding with his left-sided colleague Jose Enrique, and he frequently takes the easy option when something more daring is required. But his main statistics tell us that he is generally going about his business in an efficient manner.
In short, he has provided pretty much what every one of us thought he would do before he joined the club. A solid, but not spectacular signing. I believe that he has the ability to play for a team aspiring to finish in the top four, I’m just not certain that he believes it.
The question therefore is: Would you be happy to have him on board if he was a (for instance) £7-10m squad player? My assumption is that you would; or at least, that his performances this season would not concern you as much they have.
Did the £20m bill for Downing lead in some part to Damien Comolli’s downfall? We can but wonder, as the rumours have circulated that the Frenchman’s supposed poor negotiating skills lead to him being cut loose in the recent blood-letting exercise by the Fenway Sports Group.
Those twenty million reasons might go towards explaining Comolli’s exit; I for one hope they don’t lead to Downing’s. He definitely needs to show more next season to back up his impressive statistics though, else he may yet go down as a £20m Kop flop. Not something any of us need to see with Financial Fair Play on the horizon.